A theory about juvenile criminals has been debunked for years, but it keeps coming up in presidential debates.
by Jerusalem Demsas — Vox
October 23, 2020
President Trump has been pushing the lie that his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, called Black people “superpredators”— but there’s no record of him doing so.
During the final presidential debate in Nashville, Tennessee, Trump repeated this accusation in response to a question about Black Americans having to have “The Talk” with their children about how to safely interact with police. Trump skipped over answering the actual question and went straight to a critique of Biden’s record:
“[Biden has] been in government 47 years. He never did a thing. Except in 1994, when he did such harm to the Black community and they were called, and he called them, ‘superpredators’ and he said that, he said it, ‘superpredators,’” Trump said.
It’s an accusation Trump has been drumming up in the final weeks of the campaign.
Trump world and conservatives have been circulating 1993 remarks given by Biden on the Senate floor, uncovered by CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski in 2019. In his speech, Biden referred to “predators on our streets that society has in fact, in part because of its neglect, created.”
As Kaczynski pointed out last night and this morning, however, the only reported time Biden has used the term “superpredator” is in a 1997 hearing when he said most youth weren’t “the so-called ‘superpredators.’”
A confusing part of the story is what “superpredator” even means, or how it’s different from “predator.”
The term was deployed in a specific context of the late 20th-century juvenile crime wave. And on some level, resurfacing “superpredator” is just Trump trying to recapture the success of his attacks against his previous opponent, Hillary Clinton, who did use the term.
Though crime has been at historic lows, excluding the complicated data coming out this year, juvenile violent crime was very high in the 1980s and ’90s. At the time it was considered to be a national emergency.
Violent crimes committed by juveniles rose a precipitous 64 percent from 1980 to 1994 according to a March 2002 study by the Urban Institute’s Jeffrey Butts and Jeremy Travis. This figure includes forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault, but to underscore the horror of this era, arrests for murder alone “jumped 99 percent during that time.”
Butts and Travis write that terms “such as ‘juvenile super predator,’ ‘coming blood bath,’ and ‘crime time bomb’” flooded the airwaves as the media, state and local governments, and every day people feared that the crime wave would continue to rise until there was an “unavoidable collision with a growing generation of violent youth.”
But the term “superpredator” is not just the word predator with super- affixed to the front to make it sound worse; it is a now-debunked theory of juvenile violent crime popularized beginning in 1995 by John DiIulio, then a political science professor at Princeton University.
DiIulio’s article describes offenders as with inhuman imagery, writing he “foreswore research inside juvenile lock-ups. The buzz of impulsive violence, the vacant stares and smiles, and the remorseless eyes were at once too frightening and too depressing.” He warns America:
On the horizon, therefore, are tens of thousands of severely morally impoverished juvenile super-predators. They are perfectly capable of committing the most heinous acts of physical violence for the most trivial reasons (for example, a perception of slight disrespect or the accident of being in their path). They fear neither the stigma of arrest nor the pain of imprisonment. They live by the meanest code of the meanest streets, a code that reinforces rather than restrains their violent, hair-trigger mentality. In prison or out, the things that super-predators get by their criminal behavior — sex, drugs, money — are their own immediate rewards. Nothing else matters to them. So for as long as their youthful energies hold out, they will do what comes “naturally”: murder, rape, rob, assault, burglarize, deal deadly drugs, and get high.
He was wrong, of course. As Butts & Travis report, “violent crime in America fell for six straight years from 1994 to 2000. According to the newest crime data … the rate of juvenile violent crime in 2000 was lower than at any time in the previous two decades.” According to a 2015 article from the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange “juvenile arrests for violent crime have dropped to a 30-year low.”
But at the time, the superpredator theory resonated powerfully. As Kevin Drum writes for Mother Jones, DiIulio was invited by then-President Bill Clinton “to attend a working dinner on juvenile crime” at the White House. Hillary Clinton’s remarks a few months after that dinner make clear that his ideas had resonated. In her remarks at Keene State College in New Hampshire, she talked about “the kinds of kids that are called ‘superpredators’ — no conscience, no empathy.”
My colleague, German Lopez, has reported on how wrong this theory is, pointing out simply that: “Superpredators didn’t exist. The type of criminal Clinton was describing came from faulty research that’s been repeatedly debunked — and even the biggest proponent of the superpredators myth has since apologized for spreading the idea.”
The theory was so harmful because if you accept the premise that the juvenile crime wave was due to dehumanized kids predisposed to the most violent acts without any remorse, you likely wouldn’t turn to rehabilitation for a solution. As Lopez writes, “the myth was used to push tough-on-crime policies that helped lead to a rise in incarceration.”
Returning to Trump’s attack on Biden: Biden used the term predator in 1993, two years before DeIulio began pushing the “superpredator” theory. So unless he has a time machine, Biden was not referencing the now-debunked theory.
But there’s a reason Trump keeps pushing this attack. During the 2016 campaign, a 1996 video of Hillary Clinton using the term “superpredators” circulated widely online. There’s no way to tell if that video had a depressing effect on Black voter turnout, but it was clear that Black voter turnout was worse for Clinton than it was for President Barack Obama. Trump seems to be hoping pinning Biden with the term will have a similar effect; according to FiveThirtyEight, Trump is “gaining ground” somewhat with Black voters, especially younger Black men.
This all is not to exonerate Biden for his role in mass incarceration; he has said that he regrets his support for parts of the 1994 crime bill, calling crack sentencing guidelines that disproportionately punished Black Americans a “big mistake.”
But to have cogent policy conversations, we need to be specific about the criticism that are legitimate and ones that are not. Biden, and almost every politician active in the 1990s, ascribed to a tough-on-crime approach that is now widely criticized across the political spectrum.
It’s a testament to the rapid change in our criminal justice reform politics and likely a testament to the low rates of juvenile violent crime that have defined the last couple of decades.